No election? Is it good or bad?

Following Gordon Brown's confirmation there will be no autumn poll Sian Berry reflects on the up and

So, there’s no election next month after all. I wish I had put money on that outcome a fortnight ago, when literally everyone was telling me it was a dead cert to happen.

This did include several journalists and political forecasters, and some of the shrewdest politicians I know, so I think it probably was at some point ‘on’. But events intervened (not least the genius of whoever organised the collective protest that involved people who couldn’t be bothered with it all telling ICM they were staunch Conservatives) and so it’s all off.

I have very mixed feelings about this episode. I don’t know whether to feel annoyed or relieved, jilted or let off. So, since my creative writing juices are all being used up meeting a book deadline, no well-thought-out analysis from me this week, just the tired old lazy blogger’s option of a couple of lists…

List one: top three reasons why not having an election is a good thing.

1) End of Brown bounce double-think

Brown is less ridiculously popular at last. The past few months have been one of those periods of collective amnesia right out of Orwell. As soon as he became PM, everyone - including normally sensible political editors - seemed to forget he’d been running the country for ten whole years and actually to believe ‘everything had changed’. Thank goodness that’s all over.

2) Tory true colours revealed

David Cameron’s New Lovely Conservatives™ have revealed that they are still a bunch of toads after all. Like a magic spell in a Grimm fairy tale, as soon as the mild panic of an imminent election campaign swept over them, the evil lurking under the spin was revealed. With unseemly haste, they ditched their paper-thin greenwash, hid the still-warm Quality of Life review under the sofa, and announced a bunch (yes, another bunch) of tax cuts for millionaires instead.

3) I don’t have to go canvassing for weeks and weeks in the dark and/or cold and/or wet.

Generally I love canvassing, but I had an autumn by-election last year and it can be awful this time of year. When it’s cold and dark, not only is it hazardous on all those unlit basement stairways, but you lose all the feeling in your hands, toes and lips after half and hour and, to make it worse, the success of each doorstep encounter is measured in how much heat you can allow to escape from the canvasee’s house. A carbon disaster – in my world all elections would be in June.

List two: top three reasons why I’m a bit gutted

1) Re-start of Cameron cult?

Despite the party’s overall nastiness being reconfirmed, Cameron himself has had a bit of a boost. He had been looking increasingly crappy in Brown’s new unspun world of grittinesss, but with the press all annoyed with the PM now for leading them up the garden path (and despite what has to have been one of the dullest and least passionate party leader speeches in history) Dave is flavour of the month again. I despair!

2) We were, actually, just about ready for this.

Given the long notice of the possibility of the ‘snap’ election, we were well on the way to having a great campaign ready to roll. We have more candidates selected than at any comparable point, our policies are in better shape than ever (largely thanks to the work done on our carbon-costed budget earlier this year) and, organisationally, we were all set to campaign like mad in our three target seats. Yeah, we could have had ‘em, bring it on, etc, etc.

3) We won’t after all see the first Green MPs next month.

Last May we topped the poll in local elections in our target seats in Brighton and Norwich. So, in a snap election a few months afterwards, we’d have had a great chance of repeating that achievement and making history with the first Green MPs.

However, waiting is not such a bad thing. It does give our recently selected candidate, Caroline Lucas MEP in Brighton, more time to build up a deeper rapport with voters there. With longer to campaign, and with far better candidates than the other parties, a delay at least lets us make sure we’re best placed to win in our target seats when Brown finally decides he has an iron grip on people’s voting intentions – or when his time runs out.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.